''The Sopranos'': Carmela almost gets away
Greetings, Sopranos fans. Don't worry, Lisa Schwarzbaum hasn't been placed in the witness protection program. Actually, like Carmela and Rosalie Aprile, she's gone to France. She'll be back from the Cannes Film Festival in time for the season finale in two weeks.
Ah, Paris don't you wish you were there right now? Especially given the way this bountiful and satisfying episode kept cross-cutting between the romance and beauty of the City of Lights (where Carm, who had won the trip in a church raffle, took a well-deserved vacation with pal Ro) and the sordidness of Tony's world back in Jersey, with its strippers, vermin, and murders.
Still, Carm couldn't keep the two worlds from meshing in her mind: dreaming of the ill-fated Adriana, seeing a beacon on the Eiffel Tower that looked like the one in Tony's comatose dream, and being so overwhelmed by the generations of history in Paris that she recalled Tony's existential question in the hospital, ''Who am I? Where am I going?'' Thinking about Ro's dead husband and son, she asked Ro why she never talked about them. ''Why would you bring Jersey here?'' snapped Ro.
It's probably sacrilegious for me to wonder if Carm's lingering look at a statue of Jesus, bearing the legend ''Ecce Homo'' (''Behold the Man''), wasn't also a punning reference to Vito may he rest in peace. Vito's death wasn't as great a shock as it might have been; we'd been expecting it all season, and his return to Jersey made it all but inevitable. (Plus, doomed major characters, like Richie Aprile and Adriana, often get whacked during the penultimate episode of a Sopranos season.) At least he got to have one nice outing with his wife and kids before he met his fate, at the hands of two of Phil Leotardo's soldiers, who beat him to death in a motel room and staged the incident to look like a gay pickup gone bad.
I'm one of those who think Vito's story line this season was essential to the thematic concerns of the show and not a side trip or distraction. Vito's plight raised fundamental questions about what it means, in Tony's world, to be a man, questions that resonated richly throughout this episode. There's Phil, literally coming out of the closet as he presides over Vito's final moments. There's A.J.'s friends, making casual homophobic jokes. There's Tony, telling Dr. Melfi about his rage toward his giggling, shiftless son and turning away from her insight that the kind of shelter from Tony that Carm had always given A.J. was just the kind of protection Tony had longed for in vain from his own mother. There's Carm, practically giving Tony permission to do ''whatever it is that boys do when they're on their own'' while she's gone, and Tony taking advantage of Carm's absence to get serviced by a stripper while he's driving. (Am I the only one who thought at first that his heavy breathing was the sign of another panic attack?) And there's Fat Dom, one of Vito's killers, gloating about Vito's demise and gay-baiting the apron-clad Carlo until Carlo (like Phil, defending the manly honor of his family and himself) and Silvio kill him in a fit of rage. Behold the men.
On a practical level, of course, Vito's murder was about more than just Phil's shame over the scandal that had befallen his cousin, Vito's wife. As Tony and Sil recognized, it was also a power play. Tony had been seriously considering Vito's offer to return to work in a low-profile way, far away in Atlantic City, and even though he'd been on the verge of having Vito whacked anyway to mollify Phil, Phil's taking matters into his own hands and killing a captain in another Mob family was a brazen move that suggested Phil believed he was untouchable. Tony didn't want to respond violently. ''When guys are on the mattresses, they're not out earning,'' he told Sil. (Has someone compiled a book of the management maxims of Tony Soprano? Loved the well-chosen Godfather reference, by the way.) Tony planned to hurt Phil where it counts in the wallet but the impulsive slaying of Fat Dom probably means a real Mob war is inevitable.
One of the brilliant and diabolical aspects of The Sopranos is the way it toys with your sympathies. It's easy to feel sorry for Vito this week while forgetting that last week he killed an innocent bystander in cold blood. Or to feel disgust at Tony's casual infidelity but appreciate the warm, fatherly, firm way he finally laid down the law to A.J. Or to note that Carmela feels haunted by the deaths of Adriana and Jackie Aprile Jr. but doesn't grasp her husband's responsibility for those deaths. Or to marvel at the moral calculus that finds homosexuality a damnable sin but not beating an unarmed man to death.
So, Sopranos watchers, how do you think the season will wrap in two weeks? Will open warfare break out between Tony and Phil? Will Meadow's journey to California to be with Finn effectively end her involvement in the series? Will A.J. finally show some responsibility in his new job and earn his father's respect? And will Carmela make a moral leap and recognize the connection between her luxurious vie en rose and the grimy goings-on that make it possible?